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In Memoriam: Robert B. Eiss–1954-2023

November 22, 2023

It is with a heavy heart that I remember and celebrate our dear colleague and friend, Rob Eiss, who passed away in late October. Rob was a dedicated, long-time member of our team and a quietly wise, remarkably knowledgeable, and profoundly effective advocate for global health research partnerships. Rob served Fogarty in a variety of capacities beginning in 1993, starting as a program officer in the Division of International Relations, then serving as director of the Office of International Science Policy and Analysis. From 2000 to 2003 he took on the role of associate director for planning and budget at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and from 2005 to 2007 he served as the CEO of the Center for Management of Intellectual Property in Health Research, a non-profit based in Oxford, UK, that partnered with the Medical Research Council of South Africa. Rob returned to Fogarty in 2007, serving as senior advisor to Fogarty Director Dr. Roger Glass and, following Roger’s retirement in January, Rob became my advisor.

Photo portrait of Rob Eiss wearing glasses, a dark blazer, and a white shirt. Rob Eiss, a long-term member of the Fogarty team, passed away in late October. Read recent blogs and articles from Acting Fogarty Director Dr. Peter Kilmarx.

Rob was a leader, a negotiator, an organizer, a representative, and a visionary, who understood Fogarty and recognized the vital potential for global health research partnerships. His early, significant contribution was leading the creation of Fogarty’s first strategic plan for 2000-2003, which reoriented our programs and our focus toward the persistent burdens of communicable and emerging chronic diseases in low- and middle-income countries. This plan provided the analytic framework for NIH investments in Africa that ultimately led to the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria. Rob had a rare ability to quickly synthesize information, apply his unique perspective, and then discover fresh opportunities for the advancement of NIH’s global mission.

His proposals emphasized creative thinking, collaboration, and transparency, while balancing transformation and continuity and continually striving for improvement. His ideas shaped Fogarty’s and NIH’s global footprint as we know it.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Rob and I shared adjacent offices in the Fogarty Director’s office suite. Whenever I felt stymied with some seemingly intractable problem of global health science, diplomacy, or advocacy, I would walk up to Rob’s door. He always made time for me, and always had clear insights on the central issues, the historical context, the multiple viewpoints to be considered, and the best way forward. Both humble and eloquent, he had some very nice signature phrases, some of which I have adopted. Important information was shared with the note that it “may be of interest.” His brilliant insight was offered “if helpful.” Perfectly crafted agendas and talking points were presented “as a strawman proposal for consideration.” When he said “candidly,” you knew some criticism was coming, but always diplomatically and constructively expressed.

Photo of Rob Eiss and Peter Kilmarx standing on an outside patioRob Eiss (left) and Peter Kilmarx (right) in an undated photo.

Rob’s contributions were not limited to Fogarty. He also served as a member of the NIH global health research team and as an advisor to former NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. In that capacity, Rob helped prepare the NIH director’s presentations for the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, the National Academy of Sciences, Research! America, and the State Department, among others. In fact, Rob had an uncanny ability to develop and write materials reflecting Dr. Collins’ folksy style. By organizing annual NIH workshops for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he tightened the bonds between NIH and one of its most productive external collaborators. Similarly, he arranged and set agendas for meetings of the Heads of International Research Organizations, preparing in advance NIH presentations and briefings.

With his vast network of connections and his all-encompassing institutional knowledge, Rob kept a finger on the pulse of what was happening within and outside NIH. He was frequently called upon to represent NIH at international engagements. As part of the International HundredK+ Cohorts Consortium, Rob established and served on an executive committee that focused on standardizing databases and research and policy agendas on behalf of Fogarty and the NIH Director.

As a representative at the National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on International Science & Technology Coordination, he ensured that global health was prominently featured in the biennial report on international cooperation. As a lead writer for the National Science and Technology Council, he authored reports on U.S. government science and technology relations with Russia as well as on European economic integration and science and technology cooperation. Rob also advised the WHO Science Council and worked on an initiative to engage the public and private sector in strengthening the genomic research workforce in Africa, which has since expanded significantly. He also was the NIH lead on issues related to the EU General Data Protection Regulation, a long-term challenge for international research collaboration requiring very high-level diplomacy that Rob handled with remarkable skill and persistence.

Throughout his admirable career, Rob demonstrated an unwavering commitment to advancing collaborations in pursuit of global health equity. His contributions were not only significant in their impact but also characterized by a humility and quiet determination that left a lasting impression on all who had the privilege of working with him. In the last month I have heard from colleagues from all over NIH, other U.S. agencies, academia, and around the world about Rob’s important contributions, his admirable qualities, and their sadness at his loss.

All of us who participate in global health research live a truth once articulated by Louis Pasteur, who said, "Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world." Certainly, Rob’s dedication helped to keep that flame burning. He is greatly missed and will not be forgotten.

Updated November 22, 2023

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